Her voice quivering with emotion, Principal of Colonies North Elementary School Kris Cotton kicked off the school’s Ninth Annual Parade of Nations Friday morning by speaking about the school’s diversity and the sense of community between students, parents, teachers and administrators.

Out of 651 students enrolled at the school, 209 are English Language Learners and 149 of those are refugees. The diverse student body includes immigrants from 44 countries and there are 32 identified languages spoken at the school.

Parents, school and Northside ISD staff, and State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123) attended the unique parade. As each country was announced, students wearing their country’s traditional clothing entered carrying the flag of their native country as strains of their national anthem played. Brief facts about the country were read as the students circled the assembled crowd. Some students shyly marched, while others proudly strutted and played to the audience, relishing the applause.

After all the countries represented by the school’s student body were presented, the crowd stood as the U.S. national anthem played and students carried in the American flag. The school choir rose and sang “Together We Can Change the World” to close the ceremony.

The children's choir sings the National Anthem for the rest of the student body and faculty.
The children’s choir sings the National Anthem for the rest of the student body and faculty. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Cotton, principal since 2011, has been working at the school for 18 years. The first children of refugees began attending school in 2007. At that time, she explained, they had no experience working with students who were new to the country and who usually spoke little or no English.

Since that time, they have hired teachers with backgrounds in diversity. Some teachers have lived and worked abroad and have experience working with refugee populations. Creating an awareness of the needs of the immigrant and refugee communities has been key in creating a welcoming learning space.

“We now have a family liaison and teachers do home visits,” Cotton said.

To help with the numerous adjustments students must deal with when coming to a new country, the school has created Newcomer Classes. Divided into multi-grade levels, students have a sheltered, safe environment to learn English and explore American culture. These classes are vital in building trust with the students and the community. After completing the Newcomer Classes, students are moved into the regular ESL classes. During the process, students are not isolated from the rest of the student body, but participate and interact with the entire school.

Parveen, a fifth grader originally from Pakistan, began attending Colonies North Elementary in first grade.

“I really like it here,” she said. “I love all the teachers. We are always learning new things.”

Smiling as she talked about playing volleyball and studying math, her favorite subject, Parveen is now fluent in three languages, and hopes to become a teacher.

Mohammed from Malaysia came to the school in fourth grade. Now a fifth grader, his older brother helped him study English at home before he came to the U.S. However, he said, “I knew some English when I came here, but I was shy about speaking it.”

He has overcome his shyness and now confidently speaks English, his third language. An avid basketball player, Mohammed hopes to become a police officer.

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Kathy Hamilton

Kathy Hamilton is a reformed foreign journalist who, along with her son, is rediscovering her hometown.